The Scarlett Johansson Problem of Hollywood
Scarlett Johansson is a very good actress who is often great, occasionally marvellous, and has never been nominated for an Oscar. Her name often comes up in conversations about actors who have never received an Academy Award nomination but thoroughly deserve one. For an actress of only 33, this stands as a symbol of her critical recognition and respect among her peers. Her lack of Oscar wouldn’t mean much for the conversation I’m about to have if it weren’t for the way Hollywood loves to frame certain narratives and who they reward them to. Scarlett Johansson is going to play a transgender man and we cannot help but look at that as Oscar bait. We’ve been taught too well.
Johansson will produce and star in Rub and Tug, the story of Dante ‘Tex’ Gill, a Pittsburgh crime kingpin who ran a series of massage parlours as cover for a prostitution ring. The project will be directed by Rupert Sanders, with whom she worked on Ghost in the Shell. Both films inspired heavy criticism of Johansson for taking on roles of marginalized communities who get little on-screen representation as it is. Johansson didn’t deal with the backlash to Ghost in the Shell very well, insisting that she wasn’t playing an Asian woman. She told Marie Claire:
“I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person. Diversity is important in Hollywood, and I would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive. Also, having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity. Certainly, I feel the enormous pressure of that—the weight of such a big property on my shoulders.”
Putting aside the fact that, yes, her character is actually an Asian woman, it’s notable that Johansson frames her casting as a positive opportunity in her career because of the lack of female protagonists in such films. The word not mentioned here is ‘white’, because having an Asian actress play the lead in Ghost in the Shell would have been a rarer opportunity than Black Widow headlining a movie.
During this press tour, Johansson at least attempted some sort of humility. It didn’t help the film commercially or win over those sceptical critics, however, and the film was a major financial disappointment. Even Paramount could not deny that the controversy around the whitewashing was part of the reason it flopped.
Production on Rub and Tug hasn’t even started yet, but Johansson has already decided to drop the façade of allyship and understanding. In what may be one of the most insulting statements released by a major Hollywood star via their publicist, Johansson responded to criticisms over her playing a trans man by telling journalists to get statements from Jeffrey Tambor, Felicity Huffman and Jared Leto.
One wonders if she’s missed all the news on Tambor recently, or even the actor’s own words in an Emmy speech about how he hoped to be the last cisgender actor playing a major transgender role. When Jeffrey Tambor’s the voice of reason…
The callousness of the statement was a shock, if only because it’s bad business for actresses, especially those positioning themselves as progressive activists, to come so close to tell people to go fuck themselves. The whole point in having publicists is to prevent your true feelings on any given issue from making their way to the surface. One had to wonder about the conversations she had with her team, not just regarding her taking the role but her handling of its inevitable fallout. One could possibly argue for her naivety on the whitewashing of Ghost in the Shell if we believe the image of Johansson as a pampered starlet in an increasingly large echo chamber. However, once you’ve lived through that and faced the harsh spotlight it creates, you don’t get to go back to square one and play ignorant all over again. Then again, I suppose you do if you’re in Hollywood, the land of perpetual second chances for those who fit the bill. Don’t worry about those flops or bad press over questionable casting because you’ll get to do it all over again next year.
Johansson’s attempted career trajectory reminds me a lot of Michael Fassbender. Both are acclaimed actors who made their way through the indie movie chain to critical acclaim before being launched into major blockbuster franchises that keep them in the mainstream gaze. Each of them has strived to maintain this balance but both are also eager to be stars on each level. They want the adoring critics’ words and indie prestige as well as the billion-dollar-blockbusters that they can headline solely by the force of their name. Each of them has a comic book franchise to fall back on, but the box office profits those movies don’t rise and fall on their involvement. Fassbender tried it with Assassin’s Creed to little success, while Johansson fared better thanks to films like Lucy. Still, the chance to headline their own major property proved too enticing, which is how we got Ghost in the Shell.
The problem with the mindset that got us Ghost in the Shell is that it’s rooted in assumptions that have been repeatedly refuted over the years. The major driving force of such casting is the insistence that we need big names to open these blockbusters, especially in the international markets. This is a beloved notion in Hollywood, which has always been a solid five years behind the rest of the world. It’s easy to work by the rules that the name of a big enough actor above the title can solve all your box office woes.
However, it’s questionable as to whether this rule even exists in our current pop culture climate. Franchises and intellectual properties are where the real money is nowadays, and no matter how big the stars are in, say, Thor: Ragnarok, that movie is guaranteed to make big bucks because it’s a Marvel film. If Johansson was such a sure-fire bet for making Ghost in the Shell a success, as her producer and director insisted, then why were audiences so disinterested? The same thing could apply to smaller Johansson films too, like Rough Night, which fell below box office expectations despite her presence. Is her supposed box office clout so impressive that the part of Tex Gill simply demands it in lieu of more appropriate casting?
Profit and financial security will be the reason Johansson’s casting in Rub and Tug is defended by the industry, but it’s hard to overlook how her choice to play a trans man is immediately viewed in terms of prestige. I talked about this with Jared Leto last week, and many of the same points apply to Johansson. For a cisgender actor to play trans remains one of the great ‘challenges’ of acting: It’s a pure transformation with a capital T; It’s a role where immense focus is placed on your changing appearance; it’s, to the cisgender majority, a ‘brave’ decision. Johansson will get to put on weight and wear a binder for a few months. Perhaps she’ll chop off her hair for ‘authenticity’, but she may also get a good wig. Then she’ll go back to her usual dress size, put on some lipstick and a Marchesa gown, then appear on every talk show to place great emphasis on the magical process of Acting. She’ll try to get onto Oscar round-tables, maybe she’ll donate money to GLAAD and try to get some trans actors to publicly support her. It won’t just be pushed as a feat of acting: It will be seen as the work of a ‘true ally’, at least in her eyes.
That’s the dream path for someone like Johansson and the people surrounding her. The problem is that audiences are savvier than ever, and they have less tolerance for the continued marginalization of minority groups in pop culture. Why the hell should anyone have to settle for a movie where Scarlett Johansson plays a trans man when we have Tangerine and Pose? Why fawn over a cisgender woman getting a crew cut and binder when we have Elliott Fletcher in The Fosters and Shameless, or Brian Michael Smith on Queen Sugar? Asia Kate Dillion is breaking boundaries, Trace Lysette and Jamie Clayton are more visible than ever, and Rebecca Root is playing cisgender roles, but we still have to roll out the red carpet for Scarlett Johansson? Are audiences and the trans community supposed to be grateful when their own voices are screamed over?
Johansson’s problems go well beyond her penchant for taking on roles utterly unsuited to her. She stands as a prime example of that stereotype of a Hollywood liberal whose allyship seems to seldom extend beyond their own concerns. While she has supported #TimesUp and given her clout to political campaigns, Johansson doesn’t seem to understand that being a privileged ally sometimes means having to make sacrifices. You don’t get that juicy role that could win you an Oscar because you know that moment of visibility means more to an Asian actress or a trans male actor. You relinquish the microphone to others whose voices need the amplification. You have to understand that doing the right thing means people won’t always be paying attention to you.
It remains to be seen if Johansson appropriating another marginalized group’s narratives for big-screen glory will get her that awards boost. If it does, that won’t negate the ongoing conversations or the dent her public image has taken through her cold rudeness in response to critics. It seems that Johansson is happy to continue as she always has because there are enough people around her saying she’s on the right path. Playing an Asian part didn’t win her box office glory. Playing a trans man probably won’t get her an Oscar. So, what the hell is she doing it all for?
(Header photograph from Getty Images)
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